Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It / Edition 1

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Overview

Downtown America was once the vibrant urban center romanticized in the Petula Clark song—a place where the lights were brighter, where people went to spend their money and forget their worries. But in the second half of the twentieth century, "downtown" became a shadow of its former self, succumbing to economic competition and commercial decline. And the death of Main Streets across the country came to be seen as sadly inexorable, like the passing of an aged loved one.

Downtown America cuts beneath the archetypal story of downtown's rise and fall and offers a dynamic new story of urban development in the United States. Moving beyond conventional narratives, Alison Isenberg shows that downtown's trajectory was not dictated by inevitable free market forces or natural life-and-death cycles. Instead, it was the product of human actors—the contested creation of retailers, developers, government leaders, architects, and planners, as well as political activists, consumers, civic clubs, real estate appraisers, even postcard artists. Throughout the twentieth century, conflicts over downtown's mundane conditions—what it should look like and who should walk its streets—pointed to fundamental disagreements over American values.

Isenberg reveals how the innovative efforts of these participants infused Main Street with its resonant symbolism, while still accounting for pervasive uncertainty and fears of decline. Readers of this work will find anything but a story of inevitability. Even some of the downtown's darkest moments—the Great Depression's collapse in land values, the rioting and looting of the 1960s, or abandonment and vacancy during the 1970s—illuminate how core cultural values have animated and intertwined with economic investment to reinvent the physical form and social experiences of urban commerce. Downtown America—its empty stores, revitalized marketplaces, and romanticized past—will never look quite the same again.

A book that does away with our most clichéd approaches to urban studies, Downtown America will appeal to readers interested in the history of the United States and the mythology surrounding its most cherished institutions.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Isenberg (history, Rutgers Univ.) exploits conference reports, maps, real estate appraisals, marketing studies, and federal guidelines to show the social and cultural effects of deliberate actions in reshaping nonrural America. In this scholarly study of the built environment, Isenberg discloses that the reconceptualization of urban America is not simply a late 20th-century phenomenon but one that had its origins in Progressive Era municipal housekeeping and city beautification efforts. With a social historian's consciousness, she appropriately analyzes the roles played by race, class, gender, and age in shaping cityscapes. Isenberg's ample use of illustrations is exemplary, as is her inclusion of representative cities throughout the North and South. Her optimistic perspective on downtowns as democratic meeting places of diverse elements of the population makes one want to find out even more about the revitalizers of urban spaces. The role of gay and double-income professionals in shepherding the recent metamorphosis of the urban core is relatively overlooked. Still, this book is a welcome contribution to all collections addressing aspects of 20th-century urbanization, community relations, and real estate history. Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Chicago Tribune Books

"America's downtowns, if the daily papers and the local chambers of commerce are to be believed, are tottering on the brink of destruction once again. . . . Yet Alison Isenberg holds out a ray of hope in Downtown America. Her endlessly fascinating book argues that Main Street has always been an idealized dreamscape, a kind of Shangri-La of perfect civic bliss that never did quite measure up to its own image."

— Karal Ann Marling

New York Sun

"This is a book that I will be recommending and referring to often in the years to come."

— Francis Morrone

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"Now that big cities are again big destinations—albeit for hipsters and empty-nesters more than the middle class—this cultural history of the images of "downtown" in the 20th century is timely. There's an entire chapter devoted to those idealized Main Street postcards that show cities trying to look grown-up, for instance, and another on the historic preservation craze born in part at Ghiradelli Square. Ultimately, Isenberg suggests the only constant is evolution: If prosperous downtowns today resemble lifestyle zones of wine bars and chain stores, it's because that's what people want—no matter what they say."

Choice

Named "Outstanding Academic Title" by Choice

Financial Times

“Isenberg . . . argues against idealizing downtown as a democratic mecca or framing its history in terms of a rise and fall. . . . As this book insists, downtown is what people struggle to make of it: it’s as much a state of mind as a physical place.”

Beyond Chron (SF)
"This is likely the definitive book on America's downtowns. . . . It is not yet available in paperback, but when it does become available it should be a must read for anyone concerned with charting a new future for San Francisco and urban America."

— Randy Shaw

Journal of Social History

"Downtown America is not only an interesting look at the history of commercial interests in urban business districts, but in the people and issues surrounding commerce and urban investment--gender and race, economic failure and revitalization. Scholars of women's history, material culture, and urban history will find this book a valuable contribution to their reading lists."

— LaDale C. Winling

The Historian

"This study opens a doorway of intellectual curiosity for many who are interested in urban. intellectual, cultural, and social history. It is also highly recommended for urban planners, sociologists, economists, and the general reader. This examination greatly contributes to our understanding of the centrality of the city as a distinct place. . . . A 'must read' for all who are intreested in urban change."

— Cornelia F. Sexauer

Pennsylvania Geographer

"A must read for students of the urban scene. . . . The book's liberally annotated bibliography is a goldmine for those seeking further information on the forces shaping downtown."

— David T. Stephens

Enterprise and Society

"Isenberg's sophisticated analysis will forever alter our view of Main Street as it highlights the people who repeatedly created and contested the ideals it represented. . . . Its contribution lies not only in what it reveals to us about the past, but what it can tell us about the present and future."

— Tanya Gogan

Chicago Tribune Books - Karal Ann Marling

"America's downtowns, if the daily papers and the local chambers of commerce are to be believed, are tottering on the brink of destruction once again. . . . Yet Alison Isenberg holds out a ray of hope in Downtown America. Her endlessly fascinating book argues that Main Street has always been an idealized dreamscape, a kind of Shangri-La of perfect civic bliss that never did quite measure up to its own image."

New York Sun - Francis Morrone

"This is a book that I will be recommending and referring to often in the years to come."

Choice - R. A. Beauregard

"Inventive in its themes and imaginative in its selection of evidence, Downtown America is a perceptive and fascinating study of the never-ending adaptation of downtown retailing in the 20th century. . . . Well written and amply illustrated, this is an outstanding book."

Beyond Chron (SF) - Randy Shaw

"This is likely the definitive book on America's downtowns. . . . It is not yet available in paperback, but when it does become available it should be a must read for anyone concerned with charting a new future for San Francisco and urban America."

Ellis W. Hawley Prize - Organization of American Historians

2005 Ellis W. Hawley Prize, Organization of American Historians

Lewis Mumford Prize - Soc for Am City and Regional Planning

2005 Lewis Mumford Prize, Society for American City and Regional Planning

Journal of Social History - LaDale C. Winling

"Downtown America is not only an interesting look at the history of commercial interests in urban business districts, but in the people and issues surrounding commerce and urban investment--gender and race, economic failure and revitalization. Scholars of women's history, material culture, and urban history will find this book a valuable contribution to their reading lists."

The Historian - Cornelia F. Sexauer

"This study opens a doorway of intellectual curiosity for many who are interested in urban. intellectual, cultural, and social history. It is also highly recommended for urban planners, sociologists, economists, and the general reader. This examination greatly contributes to our understanding of the centrality of the city as a distinct place. . . . A 'must read' for all who are intreested in urban change."

Pennsylvania Geographer - David T. Stephens

"A must read for students of the urban scene. . . . The book's liberally annotated bibliography is a goldmine for those seeking further information on the forces shaping downtown."

Enterprise and Society - Tanya Gogan

"Isenberg's sophisticated analysis will forever alter our view of Main Street as it highlights the people who repeatedly created and contested the ideals it represented. . . . Its contribution lies not only in what it reveals to us about the past, but what it can tell us about the present and future."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226385082
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/10/2005
  • Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 441
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Alison Isenberg is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction
Beyond Decline: Assessing the Values of Urban Commercial Life in the Twentieth Century
1. City Beautiful or Beautiful Mess? The Gendered Origins of a Civic Ideal
2. Fixing an Image of Commercial Dignity: Postcards and the Business of Planning Main Street
3. "Mrs. Consumer," "Mrs. Brown America," and "Mr. Chain Store Man": Economic Woman and the Laws of Retail
4. Main Street's Interior Frontier: Innovation amid Depression and War
5. "The Demolition of Our Outworn Past": Suburban Shoppers and the Logic of Urban Renewal
6. The Hollow Prize? Black Buyers, Racial Violence, and the Riot Renaissance
7. Animated by Nostalgia: Preservation and Vacancy since the 1960s
Conclusion: "The Lights Are Much Brighter There"
List of Archival Collections
Notes
Index

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Recipe

Downtown America was once the vibrant urban center romanticized in the Petula Clark song—a place where the lights were brighter, where people went to spend their money and forget their worries. But in the second half of the twentieth century, "downtown" became a shadow of its former self, succumbing to economic competition and commercial decline. And the death of Main Streets across the country came to be seen as sadly inexorable, like the passing of an aged loved one.

Downtown America cuts beneath the archetypal story of downtown's rise and fall and offers a dynamic new story of urban development in the United States. Moving beyond conventional narratives, Alison Isenberg shows that downtown's trajectory was not dictated by inevitable free market forces or natural life-and-death cycles. Instead, it was the product of human actors—the contested creation of retailers, developers, government leaders, architects, and planners, as well as political activists, consumers, civic clubs, real estate appraisers, even postcard artists. Throughout the twentieth century, conflicts over downtown's mundane conditions—what it should look like and who should walk its streets—pointed to fundamental disagreements over American values.

Isenberg reveals how the innovative efforts of these participants infused Main Street with its resonant symbolism, while still accounting for pervasive uncertainty and fears of decline. Readers of this work will find anything but a story of inevitability. Even some of the downtown's darkest moments—the Great Depression's collapse in land values, the rioting and looting of the 1960s, or abandonment and vacancy during the1970s—illuminate how core cultural values have animated and intertwined with economic investment to reinvent the physical form and social experiences of urban commerce. Downtown America—its empty stores, revitalized marketplaces, and romanticized past—will never look quite the same again.

A book that does away with our most clichéd approaches to urban studies, Downtown America will appeal to readers interested in the history of the United States and the mythology surrounding its most cherished institutions.
Read More Show Less

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